Editorial: Leveling The Paying Field

Even though, most people can agree that the idea of a “good living wage” or the pathway to “middle class” is as American as apple pie, the reality is that–it is not exactly a right, but more of a privilege.  Don’t get me wrong, there are laws in place that protect your right to join a union, but idealism and realism are literally night and day when discussing this topic.  Especially since these laws have been in place since 1935 with only modest changes to date.  If you are a worker seeking to better your working conditions, it is true that you may encounter many obstacles, but when successful the payoff is definitely worth it.  In fact workers can unite and work together to impact their workplace for the positive.  But first, we must cut through the employer’s propaganda, always staying united and focused. 

Of course, that also goes for Union employers, especially when we are sitting together at the bargaining table or even when we are communicating at store level, whether it be related to a grievance, a change in company policy, or any company demands of the workforce. Your Union team is always talking about leveling the playing field when referring to organizing the non-union companies that are in direct competition with your employers. Perhaps for the purpose of this discussion, we should call it leveling the paying field, since what’s at stake is our member’s ability to support themselves and their family. That’s not a typo in the title.

Most of the messaging used to dissolve worker empowerment is based on fear tactics, misinformation, and confusion, and oftentimes the messaging can even be illegal. One tactic that is very successful is the message of losing the open-door policy, or the ability not to talk to your manager directly. This is a very personal message, which is the reason I believe it works well. This message is even more impactful in a non-union environment, there are many cookie-cutter anti-union tactics used by HR professionals across the industry. Tactics also vary from employer to employer, probably because the approach must be personalized too. It is definitely not one-size-fits-all; Some employers care more about lowering their retirement costs, for others it’s the hourly wage, and for some it could be your PTO. No matter what, it’s all about keeping the dollars that should go to your family’s budget, on their own bottom line.

The one thing they all have in common is that they want to lower their labor costs as much as possible. While I can understand controlling the brand, or the sales or other facets of the company’s business model, we have to ensure your companies understand that the people that run their stores are not their Furniture, Fixtures, & Equipment (FF&E) or any other company property. I think in some cases companies can even see more value in their FF&E, as those can be sold even after a store closure or bankruptcy. Companies have both a handbook for their workers and a playbook too. If you are a Union worker reading this, you have a contract, which is much different to an employee handbook and nothing like the company’s playbook. Your Union contract outlines important guarantees, policies, and benefits, such as minimum scheduled hours, paid time off, and wage increases, just to name a couple. Please get familiar with it, read it, and use it often.

But no matter union or non-union, you should also be familiar with your company’s employee handbook. Why? Because it gives you a perspective into what your company is looking for from you. It also allows you to know when your company is looking to change one or more of their policies. An employee handbook is not governed or enforced by the Union, so your company is free to change it whenever they like. You should also read and be up to date on the latest version of your employee handbook. Otherwise you may fall into a trap of violating a new company ‘policy’ you didn’t know was there (because it wasn’t).

I want to talk to you about continuing to build corporate accountability that goes beyond the surface and deeper into our everyday lives. As if the disparity of CEO’s salaries wasn’t already bad enough, over the past three years the average CEO salary has seen a 31% increase, while median salaries rose just 11% [Forbes Magazine, May 2022]. That is not good news for the people that I consider being the foundations of their companies, and folks that risked their health and wellbeing to make sure their companies prospered during the pandemic. Shouldn’t it be time that the wealth gap between a company owner or CEO and their workers becomes narrower, not even wider? Isn’t it time that essential workers are properly compensated for the work that they have always done? After all, it’s the sacrifice of the workers that enabled their companies to profit over the past couple of years–so why shouldn’t the workers be the ones that get the money? Why is it that the people who were able to stay as safe and comfortable as they wanted to be during the worst times of the pandemic, get to unbalancedly reap the profits over the very people that earned it for them. And in some cases, died doing so. I’d be interested to know what large business owners did for the families of their employees who contracted the virus and sadly passed from going to work? I am sure there are some heartfelt stories out there of CEO’s doing the right thing. But I am also sure that these stories are very far and few between the realities that most workers faced.

We know that it is highly unlikely for all workers’ salaries to match that of their CEO’s. But what can we do to begin to level the paying field so that the vast discrepancy between the two groups properly gets addressed? What can we do to reverse the stats, so that it’s the employees who get the larger salary percentage gains year over year? The answer is twofold in my opinion. First is a phrase that I’ve seen and heard many times in my career, which came from fellow New Yorker and, of course, Retail Clerks International Union member Thomas Donahue: “The only answer to corporate greed is Organized Labor.” It is the only way for workers to have a voice and a guarantee that their salary is going to continue to climb. So, organize! And secondly, to our Unionized employers out there reading this: Do better at the bargaining table. Show up with a preconceived notion that you are going to negotiate something better for your employees. Giving your people something more than you have ever done before should be a thing. It shouldn’t be a fight. Please understand that, in these times, if you show up offering anything less than what they deserve, they are going to feel insulted by you. In the worst of days your employees never said they were not showing up to work unless you gave them an incentive to. They just did it. They did it for their families, they did it for their communities, and they did it for YOU. Some got sick doing it and some died doing it.

Isn’t it time to show them some appreciation, and tip the scales in their favor? Whether you’re a unionized operator or not, do the right thing by the people who keep you moving in ther right direction. Because they deserve it. It’s time to level out the paying field.